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October 27, 2006 3:55 pm
For as long as I can remember, I have been spellbound by second-hand clothing, convinced every piece of cloth holds undiscovered revelations about past lives. When I was 12, my friends and I started wearing thrift-shop clothes; as teenagers, we wore 1940s housedresses, 1950s prom attire and, of course, vintage Levi’s; but it was when I was 18 that I developed an obsession with burlesque costumes that would forever change the way I thought about dress.
It started with two 20th-century burlesque costumes found in a stall cluttered with bric-a-brac at the 26th Street flea market in New York: a leotard in hot pink lace with nude net inserts, lined with rhinestone piping and with black fishnet stockings attached at the bottom; and a black jet-beaded number on black-lace overlay with a flesh-coloured corset underneath. Clutching my purchases in a flimsy plastic bag, I left the market wondering who had worn them. What did she look like? How old was she? At home, I tried them on and was not surprised at the perfect fit. Whoever the previous owner had been, I felt a connection with her. Turning the costumes inside out, I was intrigued by the meticulously handcrafted lining: hand-stitched, darned and darned again.
At the time, I was working in Sotheby’s fashion department, cataloguing and studying exceptional textiles and garments such as Dior “New Look” couture ballgowns with Lesage embroidery and Madame Grès jersey gowns with boned inner corsets. While the rarefied world of couture seems a far cry from a stripper’s wardrobe, both featured a concealed internal structure created to manipulate clients’ bodies into that of a “perfect” woman.
For the past decade I have been studying and documenting burlesque costumes and the women who wore them. Like the style icons swathed in Balenciaga, Mainbocher and Dior, the great burlesque queens became legendary for their wardrobes. Just as women pored over photographs of Mona Bismarck and Babe Paley in Vogue magazine, so they bought tickets to see Gypsy Rose Lee and Betty Rowland, instructing their dressmakers afterwards to translate their outfits into streetwear.
A standard burlesque costume began with an outer garment resembling a floor-length evening gown, often covered with a long cape or opera coat. Beneath this were an outer and inner bra, outer “pants” cut like bikini bottoms and, finally, g-string and pasties. Because the lining of the costumes became visible to the audience as layers were peeled off, their inside was extremely important. The late burlesque costume designer Gussie Gross once told me that her costumes “were as pretty inside as they were outside . . . To me, unfinished work was deplorable”.
What is hidden rather than revealed by a garment – the secret known only to the creator and wearer – is the mark of artistry and craftsmanship in all kinds of clothing: vintage, ready-to-wear and couture. Collecting burlesque costumes influenced how I saw modern clothing. The cuffs and hems of a Chanel suit weighted with chain, the red soles of Louboutin shoes and the four corner stitches of a Margiela label – these are all details visible only to the initiated.
Extraordinary attention to detail comes with extraordinary price tags, however. Just as the biggest burlesque stars spent $400-$600 ($2,600-$3,600 today) per gown – or half a top-billing queen’s monthly salary – ready-to-wear coats by the Los Angeles-based label Rodarte are priced from $10,000 due to the hand pleating and finishing involved.
As I amassed a growing collection of burlesque costumes, I became more refined in my vintage and “streetwear” tastes, saving up money for purchases. I found that clothes from certain eras suited my own body best and trawled Ebay looking for Ceil Chapman and Pauline Trigere dresses with small waists and full skirts.
Now, my burlesque collection is catalogued and stored in acid-free boxes and I hope to exhibit and donate the archive. Instead, I’m collecting vintage and contemporary “costumes”: an hourglass-shaped cocktail dress by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga; Sophia Kokosalaki’s custom-fit draped jersey dresses; a Jeremy Scott apricot silk dressing gown with a lace back reminiscent of the cover-ups burlesque queens wore backstage.
At the recent ready-to-wear shows in New York, I found another item I am waiting to add to my collection: a black silk dress by Proenza Schouler with hints of caviar beading on the back straps and bodice. I asked designer Lazaro Hernandez about the inner construction. He told me “the beads show somewhat on the outside only as a suggestion to what lies beneath, a subtle invitation to look inside”.
Liz Goldwyn’s book ‘Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens’ is published by Regan Books/Harper Collins.
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